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Austin Grossman
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Mulholland Books / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-19853-0
Publication Date: 04-16-2013
386 Pages; $26.99
Date Reviewed: 07-14-2013

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  Science Fiction  Mystery

When humans look at anything, they see story — even when they look at story itself. Austin Grossman's 'You' plays with story at all levels, a phrase that could be lifted from or exported to the world of video games in which it is set. It is the story of the birth of a new storytelling technology, a classic tale of the American entrepreneurship, a coming-of-age novel, an insider's look at what is now a multi-billion dollar empire and an experimental riff on the reading experience. It's also funny, compulsively readable and tinged with a whiff of romantic techno-nostalgia. It manages to be a novel that is grounded in unreality.

'You' immerses readers in the world of Russell, a nerd who works for Black Arts Games, and really has since high school, when he and three friends first began re-purposing school computers. Somewhere in this emotionally fraught, even terrifying time, Simon, the troubled genius of the quartet, creates a few strings of code that were fraught with magic. They became the core of WAFFLE, an almost living engine that generates computer game worlds that are always a step ahead of the competition. But there's a downside to WAFFLE; a bug that threatens undo everything Black Arts Games has built.

Grossman's narrative is all about story in all its forms; how we create it, how we live within it, how it controls us while we think we control it, and how it informs and undermines our belief in free will. 'You' rockets back and forth between Russell's first person narratives and second person in-game experiences. The effect is to keep the reader a bit off balance. It's almost as if we're navigating the prose version of a video game.

Binding the narrative are Grossman's compelling characters. 'You' is a powerful vision of America's new generation of technological artists, those who find creativity in the crevices between different versions of circuit boards, who use specification as springboard for flights of fantasy. Not surprisingly, 'You' works with archetypes, embodied in the heroic quartet who found the Black Arts. But these staples are deeply informed and detailed by Grossman's experience in the business of making videogames. The result is that they become people we know and care about; they move from the world of the book into our world.

Grossman's first novel, 'Soon I Will Invincible,' was quite funny, and this book offers a lot of humor as well, though it is much lower key. Grossman manages the unique feat of writing about science fiction worlds and even writers in a grounded and realistic fashion. The genre itself is a character that drives much of the plot as well as the plots within the games. And even the most prose-loving hard-core book fans will find an appreciation of video games as a form of storytelling.

'You' does not feel like almost any other book you're likely to read this year. Grossman's novel captures the adolescence of its protagonists and their art form. The characters' growing pains are reflected in those of the new storytelling medium. 'You' is in effect about the birth of a nation, one that has no boundaries in the physical world. In story we are freed from the constraints that chafe us in day-to-day life. In this story we find life — new life, a new world in which we can experience pure freedom. For a moment, or more, you forget who you are.

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